November 13, 2016

Declining Religiosity Does Not Guarantee a Better World

religions in Europe
Religions in Europe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Daytime temperatures here in Mississippi stayed in the mid-80s throughout the end of October and well into November. As a result, it has not felt much like Fall until last week. And yet, there were some signs of its approach. The grass in my front yard and in the yards of my neighbors is dying. It isn't quite dead yet, but it is dying. I can see a handful of trees where the leaves are finally changing color and falling off. And while the daytime temperatures remained annoyingly high until recently, the cooler weather at night has been wonderful. There is an inevitability to Fall. It may come later than I'd like here in Mississippi, but it does eventually arrive.

On this particular morning, I find myself wondering if the same inevitability is true for the demise of religion. We have seen Europe become increasingly secular, leaving the U.S. as a puzzling outlier when it comes to religiosity. Still, there is evidence of at least a slight decline here in the U.S. And when one considers that the decline has been far more pronounced among younger people, it is finally becoming possible to imagine it accelerating greatly in the not so distant future without feeling like one is being overly optimistic. I still don't expect to live to see anything as dramatic as the end of religion, but I cannot help being encouraged by the thought that we are at least moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that religion is less of a root cause of our problems and more of a symptom of other more troubling factors. For example, I now believe that our tendencies toward tribalism, irrationality, and the demonization of "the other" are probably deeper and more serious problems than organized religion or religious belief. By this, I mean that these things would persist and continue to cause harm even if religion disappeared tomorrow. A completely secular people would not necessarily be any less tribalistic, irrational, and prone to demonize "the other" as a thoroughly religious people.

Of course, I recognize that religion provides people with a particularly toxic way of being tribalistic, irrational, inhumane, and so on. In so many ways, religion allows people to do all these things proudly in a way that might be far more difficult without religion. Religion undeniably remains a problem, and I have no doubt that we'd be better off without it. Maybe it would even be easier to address these other problems if it was not for religion.

I guess what I'm trying to say, though, is that I feel more optimistic about the decline of religion than I do about the decline of tribalism, irrationality, or our tendency to demonize "the other." Criticizing religion, as valuable as it may be, does not necessarily help in these matters. And so, I cannot help thinking that we need more effort aimed at the promotion of reality-based education, critical thinking, reason, skepticism, and freethought. Collectively, I have little doubt that such efforts would lead many to atheism. I'm less convinced that the reverse is true. But most of all, I think that these efforts are likely to be far more helpful in reducing tribalism, polarization, and conflict than efforts to promote atheism.
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